Frank is a guest blogger on personal finance at defining someday. He hosts a finance-related blog at frankvoisin.com. This review was originally posted on his site on August 27, 2008.
During an MBA course on leadership, I was given an article to read called It’s Your Ship, by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff. I recently found out that the article became the basis for a book entitled It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy about Captain Abrashoff’s leadership education as commanding officer of the USS Benfold.
Abrashoff took over the Benfold at a time when the military was having problems attracting and retaining strong candidates and disillusionment ran high. The Benfold had a “sullen crew that resented being there and wanted to go home.” Abrashoff was able to turn the ship around to be “the best damn ship in the navy” by all accounts. As the junior ship in its area, the Benfold became the leader in all of the navy’s metrics, winning commendations and setting the standard for other ships to meet. Even more impressive is the fact that Abrashoff accomplished this without having to fire or replace a single crewmember – instead, he found the potential that had not been recognized to that point. It’s Your Ship is about how Abrashoff was able to accomplish this turnaround.
When reading the book, I was struck by the simplicity of Abrashoff’s actions. No act was complex or difficult, but the sum total was nothing short of remarkable. Abrashoff freed his subordinates (something counterintuitive in the armed forces) to solve problems creatively without fear of reprimand, and by doing so he created a team of problem solvers who didn’t need to turn to him for directions.
Abrashoff recognized that most obstacles that limit an organization’s potential are set in motion by that organization’s leadership, which often fails because of their own shortcomings. It is very rare that an organization fails because of the collective inadequacy of the workforce – too often the workforce is hampered by leadership. Abrashoff recognized that the more control he gave up, the better his team performed.
Abrashoff arrived at several leadership lessons that we can all learn from:
1. Lead by Example
Most often, the problem is you. You know what you want to see in your employees, but do you see the same in yourself? If not, you have no hope of seeing it in others! Hold yourself as accountable as you want to employees to hold themselves.
2. Listen Aggressively
Abrashoff began his command of the Benfold by interviewing each of the 310 crewmembers individually and privately. He listened to their concerns and stories. This helped him develop relationships and gave him ideas of how to improve the ship’s performance. He was able to empathize with them and created an environment where new ideas could be presented by anyone on the ship and would be considered equally, regardless of rank. Many of the best ideas were from the lowest ranked members. Keep this lesson in mind when running your organization – how well do you know your employees? How often do you listen to their ideas and thoughts? How often do you consult them when coming up with new directives?
3. Communicate Purpose and Meaning
Be open with how decisions are being made and why they are being made. Involve people in the decisionmaking process and you will get buy-in. If you make decisions in secret and then send them out in a top-down, thou shalt manner, you will fail to generate buy-in and set yourself up for failure.
Review all actions as a group, regardless of whether the acts were successful or not. Allow people to speak openly during these reviews so that everyone can improve together.
4. Create a Climate of Trust
You have to earn trust, and you can earn it only by giving it. You have to give people responsibility and freedom to fulfill that responsibility and then step back and watch them exceed your expectations. Have the courage to believe in your team. If you don’t truly trust them, and micromanage, you will get poor performance and alienate those that could have exceeded your expectations.
5. Look for Results, Not Salutes
Making orders from the top is “demoralizing and squashes initiative.” Encourage your staff at all levels to come up with ideas about how to improve results and give them the ability to take iniative.
6. Take Calculated Risks
7. Go Beyond Standard Procedure
#6 and 7 are closely linked. Standard operating procedure will not get you outstanding results, so unless your goal is only to not get fired, then you have to exceed the standard operating procedures. You need to take calculated risks in order to improve the organization’s performance. “Treat rules as guidelines, not as immutable laws, unless they are critical” – Pay more attention to the reasoning behind the rules and try to uphold that thinking, rather than the strict rule itself (since rules, in some situations, accomplish the opposite of the original goal!)
8. Build Up Your People’s Confidence
“Praise is more productive than punishment.” You should work to improve the confidence of your employees and work hard to help them accomplish their goals. High-confidence individuals outperform those with low-confidence, and so you should work to help people improve rather than berate them when they fail.
9. Generate Unity
Rather than focusing on prohibiting people from discriminating against others (as many corporations do through diversity training initiatives), you should focus your employees on their common interests and the reasons they should value each other. Prohibiting employees from devaluing others will not be successful, because top-down initiatives rarely work. Maximize uniqueness and help channel it toward the common goals of the group.
My key take-away from this book is that “Leadership is the art of doing simple things very well.” Don’t focus on major, immediate change through drastic changes, but instead on small initiatives that, combined, will provide the sought-after results.